Beauty in Complexity

Sue Donaldson reviews two videos by Julian Samuel, The Raft of the Medusa and Into the European Mirror
By Sue Donaldson

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The Raft of the Medusa: Five Voices on Colonies, Nations and Histories
Directed by Julian Samuel 1993 99 minutes

Into the European Mirror
Directed by Julian Samuel 1994 56 minutes

Both videotapes are distributed through 514/284.0431. A transcription of The Raft of the Medusa was published by Black Rose Books in 1993, edited by Samuel with Jocelyne Doray and augmented by an interview with Marwan Hassan and an essay by Charles Acland.

Veteran Montréal writer and video producer Julian Samuel has produced 19 film and video works since 1976, beginning with the 11 minute Formation, made while still a student at Trent University in Ontario, to the current documentary trilogy project which Samuel began in 1991. The 43-year-old Samuel's most recent works, Into the European Mirror (1994) and The Raft of the Medusa: Five Voices on Colonies, Nations and Histories (1993), form the first two parts of this trilogy which addresses primarily Muslim cultural history, both Arab and non-Arab, as seen through occidental eyes.

Born in Lahore five years after it became part of the new Muslim state of Pakistan and a bloody icon of Partition, Samuel moved with his family to Karachi and then England before coming to Toronto as an adolescent. He has lived and worked in Montréal since moving there in 1979 to complete Concordia University's graduate program in Fine Art.

When his two most recent videotapes are viewed, it becomes obvious that Samuel's use of cultural critics and historians Thierry Hentsch, Homi Bhabha, Rana Kabbani, Marlene Nourbese Philip, Ackbar Abbas, Sara Sulieri, Amin Maalouf and Dr. Chris Giannou reflects a particular approach that is both highly personal and vastly geopolitical, one that accurately mirrors Samuel's own history. Whew! Can these people talk. Initially this reviewer questioned Samuel's intent in making the tapes, when all the analysts are published writers whose views are more easily considered, analysed and reflected on when read than when heard on videotape. So why not read their books instead of attempting to follow complex and lengthy discourse on screen?

Then a couple of realizations hit: the viewer is led through Samuel's own process of reading and investigating this discourse and the intellectual associations he arrived at, not through didactic voice-over, simplistic narrative or visual imagery, but through presentation of ideas— no conversation between the interviewees, just the occasional audio interpolation of Samuel during their monologues. Thus, Samuel has attempted to provide documentation of his own intellectual associative processes. The second realization developed from this reviewer's immense frustration when watching the tapes in not being able to talk with these analysts. Samuel has constructed a possibility of dialogue within the traditionally passive documentary genre which results in the viewer being dragged into the discourse on screen, despite the static and currently despised nature of the talking-head format.

This reliance on ideas and not imagery has been one of the criticisms of the two tapes, especially within video art critical practice. Samuel has, over the years of his experimental film and video work, positioned himself within contemporary art making, but in these two works discourse wins, with no concomitant emphasis on image-making. The 1994 Into the European Mirror is a considerably shorter (56 minutes opposed to The Raft of the Medusa's 99 minutes) and more visually interesting work than the 1993 first portion of the trilogy. Samuel makes good use of Hentsch's monologues cited from inside Granada's Alhambra; the camera lingers on the formal water gardens there for a text crawl and, when Giannou is speaking of his medical work in Lebanon, there is a text crawl over his face of the names of Palestinians killed by Israeli occupation forces in one month.

Overall, Into the European Mirror is a substantially more coherent tape than The Raft of the Medusa. Although the breadth and depth of ideas encountered in The Raft are more exciting, Samuel undercuts their impact at times with, for example, alarming footage of Marlene Nourbese Philip where her statements are lost because of Samuel's decision to use foreshortened camera angles which imply something grotesque.

In a 1993 unpublished interview with Concordia film student Una El Baker, Samuel defends The Raft of the Medusa against critics of its emphasis on discourse by noting, " work is not about to turn Western aesthetics upside down. The world is overcome with formal innovation for misguided reasons...the analytical depth I achieve in The Raft simply wouldn't work if I tried to imbed these ideas in gloriously, visually poetic rich scenes. For me, an over indulgence in visuals is a cop out."

Samuel's current trilogy project owes a great debt to the influence of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism. Just as Said requires a commitment on the part of the reader to engage with complexity, Samuel's videotapes demand the same of the viewer. As Marguerite Yourcenar complained shortly before her death, much of interest cannot be reduced to simple elements; there is great beauty in complexity.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Julian Samuel
Julian Samuel is a documentary filmmaker, writer and painter.
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Sue Donaldson is a photo-based artist, writer and curator.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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Britannia Art Gallery
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